Eighteenth century pioneers like Brindley, Jessop, Rennie and Watt began the modern age of British civil engineering by
covering hundreds of kilometres on horseback to survey vast tracts of countryside, armed with little more than a compass.
'It was the first time since the Romans left Britain that someone would take a stretch of country and plot a line through it,' says canal historian Mike Clarke. 'Up till that point there had been some small scale road engineering but canals produced the first professional engineers, who prospered from regular commissions to design the new waterways, overbridges and aqueducts.'
The halcyon days of canal building, from the 1760s to the 1820s, stemmed from an aristocratic inspiration.
The Duke of Bridgewater saw the chance to cut the price of coal in Manchester and convinced politicians that a canal from the coalmines on his estate in Worsley to Manchester would pay handsomely.
An Act of Parliament in 1759 ordered the first ever compulsory purchase of land, licensed Bridgewater to supply his canal from local springs and water courses, and authorised him to issue tolls along the route. This first modern British canal was completed in 1764.
Early canal speculators were helped by heavy investment from manufacturers like Joshua Wedgwood. They seized on a form of transport that was cheaper and safer than navigating the coastlines of Britain and smoother than the rickety roads of the period, which were capable of decimating consignments of china or pottery.
Small horse-drawn barges on the early, narrow canals could carry up to 30t at good speed, and canalside factories began to spring up as fast as major towns in Britain became connected by waterway. By the start of the 19th century, waterways had provided the communication network necessary for the industrial revolution to take place.
First generation canals followed the contours of the landscape to avoid earthworks and keep costs down. Early dividends averaging 50%, caused a canal-building fever which peaked from 1790-93. The canal boom ended abruptly in 1793 when the start of what was to be more than 20 years of war with France brought high inflation.
The sudden malaise was symbolised by the building of the Gloucester- Berkeley Canal - a wide waterway designed to take 1,000t ships up from the mouth of the River Severn, and now known as the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. Begun in 1793, lack of funds delayed its completion until 1827.
Early speculators cherry- picked the prime, cheap to build routes, and some of the new schemes gambled on the building of new towns which never appeared.
National Waterways Museum curator Tony Conder says: 'Some schemes were based on a naive assumption that their proposed route going from the middle of nowhere to the back of beyond would become built up and profitable very quickly.'
Thomas Telford was at the cusp of more ambitious canal projects from the 1800s. His Birmingham & Liverpool Junction (later Shropshire Union Canal) followed the same route as the earlier Trent & Mersey from the North West down to the Midlands, but was plotted as the crow flies, by cutting into banks, boring tunnels and building embankments and aqueducts.
Telford used the established water control techniques of millwrights on a much larger scale to take his waterways up and down gradients. Locks and sluices peppered his canals, and devices such as steam pumping engines were used to recycle water back to the top of a series of locks.
These much more complex and expensive canals never got a chance to make their speculators rich because of the burgeoning rail network in the 1840s. After a few good years carrying the materials to build the railway lines, many of the canals were bought by the new rail companies, which promptly shut them down, or reduced them to low use, low cost enterprises.
The route from London through the Black Country and up to the North West remained busy because of the convenience of canalside factories and the continuing cheapness of transporting raw materials such as coal over inland water. It took the opening of the M1 to finally end the regular commercial use of the Grand Union canal from Brentford to the Black Country.
'The final commercial death of the waterways was the motorways not the railways,' says Conder.
The story of canals is presented chronologically at the National Waterways Museum, housed in a converted warehouse overlooking the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. The museum is about to undergo a 1.5M upgrade with lottery funds.